Happily for Yoko Sakamoto, she didn’t have to argue with her husband — also a Sakamoto — about whose last name they’d use when they married.
Not that the 47-year-old civil rights activist would have had much of an option: The law allows only one surname per family — customarily the man’s.
“One’s last name is a key part of one’s self-identity,” Sakamoto said. “It’s wrong that any of us by law have to change surnames that we’ve used all our lives, and it is always the women who put up with the burden.”
The Democratic Party of Japan promised a progressive agenda when it formed a government, ending 55 years of nearly unbroken conservative rule. The party began working on two bills: one that would allow married couples to keep separate surnames and another that would permit Korean permanent residents to vote in local-level elections.
But preparations for both bills have stalled.
Conservative politicians accuse the DPJ of pushing a radical agenda that would wreck family traditions and even weaken national security by granting the vote to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans and Taiwanese — without Japanese citizenship — and possibly other nationals too.
Such changes “would destroy the country,” warned Sadakazu Tanigaki, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party.
While the debate over possible tax increases to tackle the burgeoning deficit dominated the campaign for last Sunday’s Upper House election, these secondary issues could have also swayed some voters.
And the DPJ’s poor showing at the polls may have made it harder to move ahead on either bill.
Japan is the only Group of Eight nation that requires married couples to have the same family name. China and South Korea also allow married women to have different surnames than their husbands.
A growing number of Japanese women, including those who have advanced in corporate and academic ranks, want the same right. Many already use their maiden names as aliases at work.
“The DPJ rule could be our tiny window of opportunity,” said Sakamoto, coleader of the activist group mNet, which supports changes to the Civil Code. “The question is whether we can tolerate diversity and create a society that equally treats people with different lifestyles and nationality, including married couples with different surnames and foreign residents.”
But that window may already be closing.
Strong opposition from the DPJ’s tiny coalition partner Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) has stalled moves to submit the bills to the Diet and the DPJ has quietly removed them from its list of campaign promises. The smaller party claims allowing women to retain their maiden names could undermine family unity and even cause more divorces.
“I don’t understand the mentality of couples who marry to be together but prefer separate surnames,” said Shizuka Kamei, leader of Kokumin Shinto. “Do we want to see door signs showing various surnames written on them at each home?”
Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, however, said recently she still plans to submit the already-drafted maiden names bill for Diet debate later this year.
The current system “often one-sidedly imposes burdens on women, inconveniences their social activities, or causes the loss of their identity,” Chiba said. “I must say it poses a problem with the fundamental equality of men and women.”
Only in rare cases do couples use the wife’s surname, maybe because she is an only child and there is pressure to carry on the family name, or if it benefits them financially.
Last August, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women urged Japan to “take immediate action to amend the Civil Code” and drop the one-surname requirement, calling the provision “discriminatory.”
Akiko Orita has been married for more than 10 years, but because she didn’t change her name at marriage, she is classified in official records as “unregistered wife” of her husband, Yusuke Doi, who also supports the cause.
“I don’t want to have to change my name,” said the 35-year-old assistant professor at Keio University. “Everyone should have a right to choose.”
The DPJ has also sought to give the right to vote in local elections to 420,000 permanent residents, mostly Koreans and some Taiwanese. Most are descendants of wartime slave laborers who were forcibly brought to the country during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Despite being born in Japan, living here for decades and paying taxes, many such ethnic Koreans, known as “zainichi Korean,” chose not to take Japanese citizenship to retain their sense of ethnic identity or as a form of protest at Japan having stripped their families of their nationality after World War II. This disqualifies them from voting.
DPJ leaders say the proposed reform is intended to redress the suffering historically inflicted on the Koreans. Officials are still debating whether to include another 490,000 foreign permanent residents, mostly Chinese but also Brazilians, Filipinos and Peruvians, in the bill.
The bill has yet to be drafted, but it has already stirred up fears among some Japanese that it might influence local votes to undermine the national interest and security. Some say Koreans and Chinese residents may move en masse to districts overseeing disputed areas to influence decisions in a way that would weaken Japanese claims to several small islands between Japan and South Korea or China.
Rightwing activists and conservative lawmakers have repeatedly rallied in Tokyo against any moves to grant foreign residents suffrage, saying only those who have obtained nationality should be allowed to vote.
Government and media surveys show that the public is divided over both issues.
“Many Japanese may not be quite ready for a change,” said Takao Toshikawa, an independent political analyst. “But a failure to pass the bills could mean the DPJ would lose voters, particularly young women” who have supported some of the party’s more liberal policies.
Homemaker Chieko Kotani, 48, said she opposes a foreign suffrage bill because “the Chinese might take over” the disputed islets, but she backs the legal use of maiden names, which she wished had been the law when she wed 15 years ago.
“I would have kept my maiden name, Kobayashi, which I still prefer,” she said.